This Labor Day, Skills Training Advocates Can Center Working People’s Vision of Good Jobs

By Michael Richardson, Brooke DeRenzis, August 31, 2023

This Labor Day, we celebrate working people and their essential contributions to American life. Labor Day is a time to honor workers who organized to win better wages and benefits, safer workplaces, and more secure jobs – wins that have benefitted all of us. It is also a reminder that we can do more to ensure that our nation’s public policies support working people and their vision for good jobs so that everyone can thrive.

In today’s economy, every job takes skills; and jobs that require skills training but not a four-year degree are the very backbone of our economy. People who do jobs that require skills training build our roads and bridges, care for us when we are sick, move food and essential goods across the country, keep our utilities running, and so much more. At no time in recent history was the importance of these jobs more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic, when jobs that require skills training were deemed essential by elected officials, businesses, and communities alike.

Since then, working people have made gains: unemployment has declined to historically low rates, including for Black and Latinx workers; wages grew more quickly for workers at the lower end of the wage distribution than they have in 40 years; and unions increased in popularity. These gains reflect a tight labor market, changing public perceptions about work, and recent policies to provide economic relief to working families and spur historic job creation. But there is more to do to sustain and expand on these gains, and we should look to working people’s perspectives for guidance on the path forward.

Too often, those of us who advocate for policies affecting working people address skills training and job quality as two separate issues. But for working people, skills training and job quality are deeply connected:

  • New research from the Federal Reserve System’s Worker Voice Project shows that working people hold an expansive view of what makes a job a good job. While workers see wages to cover the cost of living as key to job quality, workers also place a premium on factors like job stability, flexibility to balance work and life, being treated with agency and dignity, feeling valued and respected, and having opportunities for professional growth. Just as importantly, workers participating in the project both saw and actively sought skills training as a way to change their career trajectories and economic futures.
  • Participatory caregiver research by SEIU’s Healthcare Career Advance Program (H-CAP) shows that caregivers see good jobs as those that meet core economic and health needs, provide personal fulfillment, offer respect and appreciation, and provide opportunities for growth through strong training programs and career ladders. Caregivers uplifted assistance for tuition, housing, and transportation, salary-based compensation, universal child/elder care, and peer mentors as policy solutions that would improve their job and life quality.
  • The Gallup Great Jobs Survey shows that workers value good jobs as those that offer stable and predictable pay and hours, job security, a sense of purpose and enjoyment of day-to-day work, healthy and safe environments, benefits, agency, and career advancement opportunities, and that job quality informs workers views on their overall quality of life. The survey also found that workers with lower incomes and workers of color are less likely to be in good jobs. Notably, workers at the bottom 20% of the income distribution are less satisfied with their level of pay – but they’re also less satisfied with the opportunities they have for skills training and career advancement compared to those at the top 10% of the income distribution. Just as importantly, workers with a high school education and professional certification but no other postsecondary education were among the most likely workers to be in a good job.

We need public policies that fully value the contributions of working people, support their careers, and reflect their vision of good jobs.

Our current policies are falling short. Despite the boost that unions give to working families’ wages and wealth, our country’s labor laws create barriers to unionization and collective bargaining. While inflation in 2022 quickly drove up the prices of everyday essentials, the $7.25/hour federal minimum wage stayed flat and safety net programs now face funding threats. Even as the pandemic underscored the essential nature of many jobs that require skills training and federal policymakers invested trillions in infrastructure projects to create millions of new good jobs, Congress has not prioritized investments in postsecondary training, workforce development, or supportive services.

To create an economy where working people thrive, we also need public policies that are intentionally designed to advance racial, gender and intersectional equity. Ten years from now, people of color will make up the majority of the American workforce. The growing diversity of the American workforce is our country’s unique strength. A diverse workforce brings different perspectives, experiences, and skills to the workplace, resulting in innovative solutions, improved decision making, and increased productivity.

However, Black and Latinx workers and women are disproportionately represented in the low-wage workforce and industries with lower quality jobs. These inequities are not coincidental: work historically done by Black and brown people and women has been devalued and left out of worker protection laws while at the same time, racist and sexist laws, policies and practices created and reinforced occupational segregation. Without policies that are intentionally designed to advance equity, we risk erasing employment gains recently made by Black and Latinx workers and widening gender-based employment and earnings gaps.

So what can we as skills training advocates do?

We can ensure that the skills training policies we advocate lead to quality jobs.

Every day, working people seek out skills training to grow their careers and improve their economic circumstances. It’s imperative that skills training programs make good on that promise. In proposing new ideas for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, NSC is calling for new investments in industry partnerships, career pathways, and apprenticeship programs intentionally designed to increase workers’ access to quality jobs and reduce occupational segregation. We are calling for working people and worker organizations to have more representation at policy decision-making tables. And we are calling for WIOA to measure the quality of credentials, career pathways, and jobs connected to publicly funded skills training programs, disaggregate data by race/ethnicity and gender, and supplement quantitative data with qualitative data that centers workers’ experiences.

The Ohio Workforce Coalition, a member of NSC’s SkillSPAN network, is using its recent report When Working Isn’t Enough: Wages and Public Benefits in Ohio to advocate for policies that lead to quality jobs. They are also advocating for the state to create a voluntary Ohio Premier Employer designation for employers who invest in their workforce and offer quality jobs so that designees receive priority access to workforce funds and initiatives.

We can join working people, labor activists, unions, and employers to ensure that every job is a good job.

Skills training alone is not enough. Skills training must work in tandem with other policies and practices designed to improve job quality; and skills training advocates can lend their voices in support of such policies. For example, in support of people-powered infrastructure, NSC recently joined unions, worker rights organizations, and environmental advocates in calling for EPA and the Department of Labor to work together to support labor standards, prevailing wages, and workers’ rights to organize in jobs created by new federal infrastructure investments. NSC has also worked to inform job quality efforts by the Departments of Commerce and Labor, with NSC’s Business Leaders United initiative contributing case studies to demonstrate what small businesses can do to ensure they are offering quality jobs.

We can center racial equity and the voices of working people in all that we do.

Our nation’s economy was built on racist policies and practices, and that history still shapes the inequities we see in our labor market today. To remedy our past and create an economy that supports all working people, we need public policies that intentionally advance racial equity. NSC has been engaged in an ongoing journey to bring an intentional racial and intersectional equity lens to our policy, advocacy, and organizing efforts. We have developed and are using a racial equity guidebook to ensure we are centering racial equity in the policies we seek and the process for arriving at those policies, and we are continuously learning how to do that work with leaders in our SkillSPAN and Business Leaders United networks. By advocating for policies designed to ensure that workers of color have what they need to thrive, we are supporting policies that benefit all working people.

In California, NSC and UCLA Labor Center are partnering to support a worker equity initiative led by community and labor organizations and the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency that seeks to transform the publicly funded workforce development system and promote high road, quality jobs and career pathways for the state’s most marginalized workers. The initiative centers workers’ needs, voices, and career aspirations with a racial equity framework.

We are also beginning to engage working people as expert advisors and partners in our policy development and advocacy, after a year of learning from coalition partners who are already leading worker engagement and leadership efforts. We understand that workforce development policies will be most effective if they reflect the needs and solutions of the people they are intended to benefit. Working people have valuable insights into what’s working, what’s not, and what could be different about training programs. That’s why NSC is working to listen to, learn from, and take action with working people through a network that centers workers and provides them with a platform to amplify their experiences, creates a space for them to learn and engage in shaping policy and provide them with opportunities and the resources they need to advocate. At our Skills in the States Forum in November, we will hear from workers on what they want from skills training and their perspective on what it means to have a good job

These efforts are just the beginning of how we can show up for working people. As skills training advocates, there is more for us to do to advocate for public policies that fully value the contributions of working people and their vision of good jobs. But this Labor Day and every day, we are glad to be in partnership with our coalition members and new partners alike in our efforts to expand opportunities for working people to thrive.